Are We Asking Too Much? Charging Volunteers for Training
In today’s economy, our budgets are shrinking and our need for volunteers is growing. We all know that volunteers are not “free labor.” It costs money to have a successful program that implements our professional best practices. According to the "The Cost of a Volunteer” by the Grantmaker Forum on Community and National Service, “21 st century volunteers cost more because of changing demographics and expectations among those who volunteer; organizations are compelled to invest more time and money in the recruitment, training and retention of the 21 st century volunteer than of volunteers of the past.”
With less and less funding available, how do we meet the needs of a 21st century program? A growing trend is to charge volunteers a fee to attend required trainings. Some programs that serve vulnerable populations also require volunteers to cover the cost of their fingerprinting and background checks. In the current program that I manage, my staff and I provide one complimentary uniform t-shirt to new volunteers and ask that they pay for any additional uniform and logo items that they want to have.
Example 1: In 2004, the Washington D.C. City Council proposed a bill to require volunteers in schools to cover the $40 cost of being fingerprinted and having an FBI background check. They reasoned that, if the community wanted to be assured that their children were protected from predators, they would be willing to “foot the bill” for these screening tools.
Example 2: For a zoo volunteer program, I charged $250 for 24 hours of docent training and $50 for 10 hours of animal care training. Additionally, our youth volunteer program required parents to write a check for $65 for their student’s enrollment in the summer corps. These fees help off-set the cost of volunteer uniforms, developing and copying training materials, providing snacks, and the use of staff time.
What is the Fear?
A 2004 editorialist for The GW Hatchet expressed a shared concern about the idea of charging volunteers: “District schools are in desperate need of committed individuals willing to invest time in helping children. Forcing them to pay for the ability to volunteer jeopardizes the continued substantial turnout of quality people to help. The loss of such individuals would only be to the detriment of the children they seek to help.”
Many of us are under tremendous pressure to recruit enough volunteers to fill all the needs of our organization’s programs and services. We want to remove any obstacle to volunteering that may prevent a community member from signing on. The fear that charging money for our trainings and background checks may decrease our pool of committed volunteers keeps many of us from considering this funding option. We worry that, if someone has a choice between our volunteer program and its $40 background check fee or another program that is completely free, they are likely to choose the other option. Additionally, while most volunteers are okay with the idea of paying a fee, there is the fear that your program may at least appear, if not become, elitist.
“Warm Body” Recruitment Doesn’t Promote Retention
Many of us have had the experience where we were just days away from a major event and were short on the volunteers needed to fill all the shifts and positions. At that point, we were willing to schedule anyone who raised their hand. Or, you may have an executive director who sets recruiting goals for you that are challenging to meet. However, do we want to accept everyone who says that they want to volunteer with our organization? Experience shows us that not every person is right for every volunteer opportunity or organization. Careful screening and placement actually promotes retention, improves volunteer experiences with our program, and creates an atmosphere that attracts quality community members.
Additionally, we’ve all had the experience of spending our time and resources to bring a volunteer all the way through our application, orientation and training process, only to have them quit before they actually serve. Asking volunteers to help cover program costs can encourage them to carefully consider whether or not they really want to make a commitment to your organization. This can be a successful tool that helps some community members screen themselves out of your program before you have made a great investment in them. Additionally, these fees underscore to your volunteers that you are a nonprofit with limited resources. Perhaps they may get in the habit of writing checks, supporting the idea that "volunteers donate and donors volunteer."
A domestic violence shelter in Portland, Oregon, only offers its volunteer training three times a year. While they don’t charge for this training, they do promote a feeling of professionalism and even exclusivity that actually attracts more people to their programs. This can be true of programs that charge a reasonable fee to their new volunteers. With the zoo program that I mentioned earlier, I always filled the trainings with at least the minimum number of required new volunteers.
We should be mindful that there may be community members who would be a great fit for our volunteer opportunities but who can honestly not afford to cover any costs. For potential zoo volunteers on a tight budget, like college students, I confidentially offered the option to pay in installments while going through training. And, whenever possible, I also offered "scholarships".
The money for these scholarships was not covered in my annual operating budget. I sought the assistance of the development director to find another way to assist low-income volunteers. We found that one of the easiest ways to raise money to fund volunteer training scholarships is to offer this as an option at a live auction fundraiser. The development director raised money for scholarships for education programs this way, too. She provided amounts that appealed to many levels of donors. A tip for offering these scholarship funding opportunities at your next event: Start the bidding at the highest level and work down.
Linda Graff of Linda Graff and Associates offers two additional options:
- 1. Allow volunteers to apply for an exception to the fee where it would create a self-defined hardship.
- 2. Initially charge volunteers a fee for their training. Then, refund half of the fee to all volunteers who serve a certain period of time, i.e. six months, after training is completed. This policy addresses the issue of training community members who then don’t volunteer any time and helps to weed out the less committed. However, this still brings in some revenue to support your volunteer program. Some volunteers will end up refusing the refund as they become engaged in your mission.
Volunteers Will Step Up
The first time I sat across the desk from a volunteer writing a check for her upcoming docent training, I admit that I felt very uncomfortable. After all, she was offering time out of her busy schedule to support the organization’s mission. Fortunately, I found that many volunteers supported the idea of helping the organization’s budget out in this way. In fact, I would regularly receive an extra donation in addition to the required fees. Truth be told, I’m still not entirely comfortable with the idea of charging volunteers. But I have found that, when given the chance, if they truly support the mission of the organization, volunteers are willing to step up and help cover reasonable costs.
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